A masterpiece of modernist campus design, the vision for the Illinois Institute of Technology was developed as a collaboration between architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and landscape architect Alfred Caldwell. Together, the two designers fused contemporary thought on architecture with sensibility towards the Midwest landscape vernacular to craft a campus that “flowed like water around stones” (Phyllis Lambert, Mies in America).
Sadly, over the next half century, IIT eschewed it acclaim as model of modernist campus design and came to exemplify urban blight. The surrounding South Side neighborhood deteriorated and rust marred ill-maintained campus landmarks. Campus expansion projects outside the original Miesian precinct felt marooned on by traffic-clogged State Street, unsightly parking lots, and a looming elevated train line. The campus landscape suffered as well. Caldwell’s ubiquitous American elms succumbed to disease, and equally prominent honey locusts expired at the end of their fifty-year lifespan. Alarmed by dwindling enrollment, college administrators even pondered relocation outside the city.
In 2003, Hoerr Schaudt was engaged to create a landscape master plan for the campus in an effort to revitalize the institution. The landscape master plan culminated in five built projects intended to remedy the disrepair while channeling ideals set forth by Mies and Caldwell that included celebrating the horizontality of the Midwest landscape and encouraging the use of native plants.
State Street Boulevard
State Street, one of the major north-south streets connecting Chicago’s “Loop” to the South Side of Chicago, bisects the IIT campus. The streetscape revitalization was a key component of the landscape master plan and sought to serve as a catalyst effort in reconnecting the Miesian core to the east campus. The revitalization concept involved a simple, yet radical solution: eliminate the on-street parking from 30th to 35th Streets, enlarging the parkway widths which provided space for a reinterpretation of Caldwell’s iconic Crown Hall landscape and along the entire length of State Street. Widening the parkways and planting both the parkway and median (with over three-hundred trees) “fused” together both sides of the campus, creating a sense of connection that was previously absent.
Crown Hall Field
Located at the core of the campus, Crown Hall Field was designated in the Master Plan as the central campus open space. Hoerr Schaudt aimed to develop an honorific and welcoming landscape, one that marks Crown Hall as the center of the IIT campus. The design for the space focuses on a sunken, rectangular lawn, which curves at one corner to accommodate an existing grove of mature Honeylocusts. In keeping with Caldwell’s preference for native Midwestern plantings, a dense placement of shade trees and flowering trees border and define the central open space. The density of trees and the exaggerated effect of open and closed spaces express the abstracted Midwestern landscape represented in the urban environment, a concept seen throughout Caldwell’s work. Topographically, the sloped perimeter of the field creates a sense of enclosure and provides places for lawn and limestone slab seating while the open center of the field creates space for activity.
The realignment of Federal Street facilitated the master plan goal of relocating parking from State Street by providing expanded lots along Federal Street. A crushed stone forecourt flanked by woodland trees and perennials was created in front of the historic “pre-Miesian” Main Building. The plantings maintained a master plan mandate to wrap buildings with a textured groundplane, and not disrupt the horizontal landscape geometry with shrubs. An existing linden allée was thinned and a crushed stone plaza with monolithic benches was placed underneath the trees, providing an outdoor gathering space for students. At both locations, spaces were generated that offered opportunities for casual gathering.